Tony Martin dies at 98; singer-actor in Hollywood musicals

Tony Martin with Alice Faye in "Sally, Irene and Mary."

Tony Martin with Alice Faye in “Sally, Irene and Mary.”

(20th Century Fox)

Tony Martin, one of the last of the big-name singer-actors from the golden age of Hollywood musicals, has died. He was 98.

Martin, who toured for years with his wife, dancer-actress Cyd Charisse, died of natural causes Friday at his home in Los Angeles, his longtime business manager, Stan Schneider, told The Times.

He appeared in more than 30 films, most memorably as a thief at odds with Peter Lorre’s inspector in 1948’s stylish “Casbah,” one of the many movie musicals that helped turn Martin into a star.

Twice, songs sung on screen by Martin received Academy Award nominations: “For Every Man There’s a Woman” from “Casbah” and “It’s a Blue World” from the 1940 film “Music in My Heart.”

He endured as a crooner of romantic ballads, continuing to perform them onstage well into his 90s.

With his powerful voice and beguiling style, Martin was enormously popular from the late 1930s through the 1950s as a singer who helped make standards out of such tunes as “Stranger in Paradise,” “La Vie en Rose,” “Fools Rush In,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and many others.

Although dozens of singers recorded Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” Martin was so identified with it that former Times jazz critic Leonard Feather once described the song as Martin’s “virtual mirror image.”

“Martin reminds you of that era when hearts were worn on sleeves,” Feather wrote in a 1970 Times review of a local nightclub performance. “He lets all the emotions hang out, rising to a triplet-backed crescendo on ‘For Once in My Life’ and singing ‘I Am in Love’ as if addressing it to Rita Hayworth in a tight close-up,” a reference to the glamorous stars with whom he shared the silver screen — and regularly escorted around town.

His tenor voice won him roles in such 1936 movie musicals as “Pigskin Parade” with Judy Garland and Betty Grable and the riverboat saga “Banjo on My Knee” with Barbara Stanwyck. He also co-starred in 1941’s extravagantly choreographed “Ziegfeld Girl,” serenading Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner with “You Stepped Out of a Dream.”

By the early 1960s, movie musicals and his singing career had crested, and he began touring with Charisse in a cabaret act. He pulled from a treasury of songs that included “I Get Ideas” and “It’s Magic,” and his wife danced.

“To him, walking out on to a nightclub floor is as simple and natural as going to the kitchen for a glass of water,” Charisse said in “The Two of Us,” the joint autobiography she wrote with Martin in 1976.

The couple marked 60 years of marriage in 2008, the year she died at 86. A bereft Martin, then 94, dealt with his grief by continuing to perform live, he later said.

Although he was no longer a belter, the rich timbre of his voice was “surprisingly unchanged from what it was in the 1940s and ‘50s,” according to a 2009 New York Times review during a five-night engagement at a New York City nightclub.

Cued by his pianist, the 95-year-old Martin sang “perfectly recollected versions” of songs associated with such contemporaries as Bing Crosby (“I Surrender, Dear”) and “There’s No Tomorrow,” which Martin said was given to him by Perry Como, according to the review.

Martin viewed his performing style as heartfelt, telling The Times in 1960: “I think I sound like a fella who’s always making a plea through his music. Sort of a plea of sincerity.”

He was born Alvin Morris on Dec. 25, 1913, in San Francisco, according to birth records. His parents, Edward and Hattie Morris, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who divorced when he was young, and he considered his stepfather, tailor Myer Myers, his father.

Growing up in Oakland, he took up the saxophone after his grandmother gave him one when he was 10. The instrument — and later his singing — were “my passport away from poverty,” he later said.

In high school, he formed his first band and after graduating spent about two years at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., but left to pursue music.

For several years, he played and sang with bands in the San Francisco area, including the Tom Gerun Orchestra. When legendary MGM studio chiefLouis B. Mayerheard them on the radio, he brought Martin to Hollywood in 1934 for a screen test.

It took him a couple of years to break through, and he eventually adopted the stage name of Tony Martin.

After signing with 20th Century Fox in 1936, Martin was cast in the Shirley Temple musical “Poor Little Rich Girl” and the musical comedy “Sing, Baby, Sing,” which featured Alice Faye, one of the biggest stars of the era.

The debonair Martin, who dated such screen goddesses as Hayworth, Lana Turner and Yvonne DeCarlo, married Faye in 1937.

“To many people around town, I was Mr. Alice Faye,” he later complained.

When he hit the road to play in nightclubs, the marriage fell apart in 1941, the year he appeared with the Marx Brothers in “The Big Store,” singing what became a signature tune — “The Tenement Symphony.”

World War II interrupted his career, and his military service was fraught with controversy, including rumors that he had bribed his way into an officer’s commission in the Navy. Discharged from the Navy, he joined the Army as a buck private and performed with an Army Air Forces orchestra led by Glenn Miller. He left the Army as a technical sergeant in 1945.

“The war and all my service-connected problems did me one good turn,” Martin wrote in his autobiography. “I went into the Navy a real cocky kid. When I came out, I was pretty humble. I had been chopped down to size.”

The ruckus threatened his career and made it harder for him to find work after the war.

But in 1946, he recorded “To Each His Own,” which became a top 10 hit. That same year, he appeared in the Jerome Kern biographical film “Till the Clouds Roll By.” He continued to regularly sing and act in movies through the 1950s.

Martin’s string of hit songs that began in the 1930s with “Now It Can Be Told” and “South of the Border” continued in the 1950s with such titles as “Tonight We Love” and “Circus.”

During the same time, he was active on radio, appearing on Walter Winchell’s “Lucky Strike Hour” and with George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Segueing to television, he hosted “The Tony Martin Show” from 1954 to 1956 on NBC and was nominated for an Emmy as best male singer in 1955.

Through their mutual agent he met Charisse, who went toe-to-toe in films with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

“She stepped out of a dream,” Martin later said.

They were married in 1948 and had one son, Tony Martin Jr., who died in 2011 at 60.

Martin’s survivors include Nico Charisse, his wife’s son by her first marriage, and two grandchildren.

As he entered his late 90s, Martin attributed his stamina to daily calisthenics, giving up smoking in his 60s, eating two meals a day and walking.

Being onstage made him feel young again, he said.

As he marked only his 50th year in show business, in 1981, he paused during a week of shows in a New York club to ask: “What am I going to do? Sit in Beverly Hills and watch the clouds go by?”

Nelson is a Times staff writer, and Luther is a former Times staff writer.